Photos by Raquel Hendrickson

It’s a rush.

The pounding of hooves, spray of dirt, slap of leather, echo of a hollow barrel landing upright after tipping precariously. Maricopa barrel racers uniformly call it “a real passion.”

“I’ve always loved the speed – to open a horse up and just feel the adrenaline,” said Kristin Crocker.

Originally from Wisconsin and operating a Primerica financial services  office in Queen Creek, Crocker moved to Maricopa two years ago and plans to build a local clientele. She is just one of scores of barrel racers who enjoy two rural rodeo arenas near Maricopa.

“It’s been a passion since I was little,” she said. “It’s something that I just have loved and carried on to my daughter.”

In barrel racing, riders must guide their horses around three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern without knocking any down. Fastest time wins.

Jordan Lytle, too, grew up with the sport. She is a frequent rider at both arenas with her main horse Skipper. She seemingly grew away from the sport  when she became a young adult, but was drawn back.

“I felt empty without it,” she said.

During snowbird season, the Thunderbird Farms Arena on Ralston Road is abuzz with local riders like Crocker and Lytle and scores of Canadians who truck in horses every year. The property includes two arenas, one for competition and one for warmup, and is owned by Pinal County.

TACC, a , leases it from the county and hosts frequent cash competitions. One of its primary responsibilities is taking care of the place.

“All the money that comes in goes back into the property for upkeep and maintenance on the equipment,” said Jennifer Faunce, who, along with three other board members, has been in charge of the place for five years. “Like, this year we put in new LED lights, which is really expensive.”

They lean heavily on volunteers, especially with the very busy warmup arena.

There are around 200 members, many of them from Canada. This year, the end of the barrel season coincided with the rise of the novel coronavirus. Many riders who typically stick around Maricopa through April were already gone before April Fool’s Day.

At its busiest times, equine events are held nearly every weekend at Thunderbird Farms Arena and at least every Monday at the Pomeranz Arena, a family-owned property even farther south in Hidden Valley.

Faunce, originally from Casa Grande, now lives near the arena. She said it’s great for Maricopa’s horse community to have an arena so close.

Also a lifelong barrel racing enthusiast, she gets her enjoyment “from the competitiveness of it and the time and effort it really takes to make a good horse,” she said.

She defines a good barrel horse as one that is “really gritty, one that just has the desire to go out there and make a run. Without that you’re not going to be very fast.”

When barrel racing was created is hard to pin down. When the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association was formed in 1948, it was already a known sport for girls. WPRA made it a big deal, with prize money eventually equal to that of men in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.  Now it has become more common to see men competing as well, especially at grassroots arenas like those in Maricopa.

Crocker also races in Queen Creek and Gilbert. She even boarded horses for a time to help out friends. She, too, knows what she’s looking for in a good barrel horse. Unsurprisingly, passion comes back into the conversation.

“One that has the mindset, that really has that passion,” she said. “They have the same passion as you and really, truly love their job. It’s like two hearts together.”

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This story appears in the April issue of InMaricopa.